#17 sharing
Anne Vestergaard / Julie Uldam

The Hashtag Protest

Ever since the Arab Spring, social media has been praised as a means for civic engagement. Despite its positive impact, restrictions remain.

Social media has been praised for its potential for facilitating civic engagement. At a time when one of the most difficult problems facing democracy is the decline in citizens’ engagement in politics, this potential has been vested with hopes that social media can help citizens share information and knowledge – about policy and government, corporate conduct, and strategies for participation – and thus strengthen democratic participation and accountability at national and international levels. At the same time, however, sceptics have pointed to the constraints of social media, highlighting issues of commodification, security, and ‘clicktivism’.

Civic Engagement and Sharing in Social Media

To understand the links between sharing content in social media and civic engagement, we must distinguish between the two ways in which we make use of our democratic rights. While formal political participation implies means such as voting, its more informal counterpart known as extra-parliamentarian engagement involves volunteering, activism, and participation in community-driven initiatives. Civic engagement deals with political and social issues and therefore does not always adhere to traditional perceptions of formal or institutional politics. This is where the potential for engagement via social media lies.

It was the Arab Spring in 2010-2012 that prominently drew attention to social media’s significant role in political engagement.

It was the Arab Spring in 2010-2012 that prominently drew attention to social media’s significant role in political engagement. Although the degree of internet penetration and social media’s role differed vastly between the various countries involved, it is clear that social media may serve as facilitator and catalyst for political protest events in at least three ways, endowing them with enormous significance for terror-organisations such as ISIS. First, social media may play a critical role in shaping opinions and mobilizing constituencies. Second, social media significantly contributes to facilitating the organization of protest movements and coordination of offline events. Finally, social media plays a crucial role in directing (international) attention, especially with respect to events taking place in countries that cultivate censorship or regions inaccessible for journalists.

In the North, the Occupy Movement is one of the recent widely known examples of such engagement. The Occupy protest camps served to both object to the influence of corporate power on formal politics (among other issues) and enact a community-driven alternative with free libraries, seminars and experiments in direct democracy as forms of the current neoliberal organisation of society. The Indignados Movement in Southwest Europe and Latin America has caught the attention of scholars and the media as an example of prefigurative politics emerging in the informal spheres of civil society. Civic engagement is also expressed through creative, subversive tactics, such as the actions by the Yes Men, culture jammers who impersonated WTO officials and announced the refounding of the WTO to ensure businesses help people rather than businesses.

…it indicates not so much a decline in participation, but rather participation in flux.

When civic engagement is understood as political participation, it indicates not so much a decline in participation, but rather participation in flux. Consequently, questions about civic engagement and democracy should not just focus on declining participation in parliamentarian politics, but also on the emerging formal and informal modes of participation, and how they are facilitated and constrained by sharing in social media.

The Limits and Surveillance Power of Social Media in Civic Engagement

Despite its great potential to access the mainstream public sphere and provide new platforms for sharing (counter)discourses/(counter)information and viewpoints beyond politically oriented fora, there are constraints on what social media can and cannot accomplish. Social media have been shown to privilege formal (reformist and institutional) modes of civic engagement over informal (radical and anti-systemic) modes and individual over collective engagement. For example, sharing of information to wider audiences about government or corporate misconduct still requires coverage from traditional mass media to have an impact and is often heavily sanctioned, as several Wikileaks cases have demonstrated.

…oil company BP monitors selected individuals from the climate justice movement in the UK.

But social media are not tools that are solely owned by informal actors. They also provide governments and corporations with new possibilities for monitoring activists and civil society. Government surveillance of activists is well-documented in both scholarly research and the media. In 1999, monitoring of activists in the wake of the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization showed how governments in the North have clamped down on dissident voices. Corporate monitoring of activists is less known, but a serious factor nonetheless. In surveillance studies, recent research has started to critically address corporate organisations’ uses of ‘big data’ from social media to identify issues, contexts, events and groups that could potentially damage their reputations. When it comes to individual activists, for example, oil company BP monitors selected individuals from the climate justice movement in the UK. SpinWatch and Gary Ruskin have shown how companies including Walmart, Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BAE, and E.ON have been linked to espionage or planned espionage against NGOs, activists and whistleblowers, often through private agencies. NGOs, activists and whistleblowers’ use of social media to share information about corporate misconduct with wider audiences provide an important entry point for corporate intelligence agents. Gary Ruskin’s report also documents how Chevron tried to recruit a journalist to spy on local residents in Ecuador while interviewing them about the effects of Chevron’s Texaco oil spill in the area.

Approximately half of the world’s largest economic entities are not countries but companies.

Civic Engagement and the Corporation

Civic engagement’s awareness has increasingly shifted from government issues to the social, political and environmental implications of business practices for the public. Approximately half of the world’s largest economic entities are not countries but companies. Even more importantly, these immensely powerful multinational corporations operate in a judicial void – detached from national legislation, or taking advantage of the legal frameworks of weak (or non-) democracies in the global arena. This has led to a proliferation of transnational movements that monitor multinationals and hold them accountable when their practices violate human rights, civic rights and environmental standards – both formally and informally.

Formal social movement organizations and NGOs, such as the War on Want, campaign against unsustainable corporate practices, while others, such as the WWF, partner with corporations in corporate responsibility programmes. Informal social movement organizations and non-professionals, such as Rising Tide or Via Campesina, collectively organize sharing of information about corporate misconduct. The move towards business-centred civic engagement does not, however, imply a move away from demands for reform (e.g. fair trade, labour, tax or environmental regulation in the industry) or systemic critique. For example, the campaigns against BP’s sponsorship of arts institutions such as the Tate in London not only criticise BP, but also the role of corporate power in determining climate policies in a neoliberal marketplace or system.

Corporations are more and more willing to consider the demands of social movements and activists, but thereby risk exposure.

Corporations are more and more willing to consider the demands of social movements and activists, but thereby risk exposure. In a reality in which reputation and brand are a company's key assets, civil society actors have the power to cause financial damage to companies by exposing ethical misconduct. This undermines the legitimacy of a company, resulting in restrictions in the form of state and interstate regulations as well as in political influence. In the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, activists and local communities shared information about the impact of the disaster on local communities, hoping to influence regulatory decisions on BP’s financial recovery responsibilities. This shows how important it is that civil society is able to access spheres of public opinion making to foster its own empowerment.

Civic Engagement Beyond Formal and Individual Engagement

But what is left of social media’s impact after an online protest or a demonstration has ended? What durable forms of engagement are there to ensure a lasting impact and the sustained involvement of citizens? And what are the limits of social media here?

First, the long and difficult process of articulating – and hopefully working towards – viable alternatives begins after the protest. In this process, transient online spaces, social media platforms included, facilitate instant agency, a kind of point-and-click activism that offers easy, non-committal modes of civic participation. Consequently, citizens’ engagement with an issue may end after the single click of a mouse, as often happens after a user has joined a Facebook group or signed an online petition. This impairs both sustained efforts to follow an issue to its conclusion and the nitty-gritty of everyday organising to campaign for wider systemic change.

With their possibilities for non-hierarchical organising and debate, social media have been welcomed for their potential to enable such enactments of alternatives.

Second, protest events may generate enactments of alternative organisational forms. With their practices of direct democracy, consensus decision-making, and community-organised social provisions such as libraries, kitchens and teaching, protest camps, from the women’s anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common in the early 1980s to the Occupy camps in 2012, provide significant examples of enactments of alternatives to the current neoliberal organisation of society. With their possibilities for non-hierarchical organising and debate, social media have been welcomed for their potential to enable such enactments of alternatives.

Often, however, formal and informal modes of civic engagement are interrelated in ways that do not challenge current structures of governance. Examples of such collaborations include the involvement of NGOs in companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, networks co-organised by formally organised NGOs, and informal radical social movement groups, such as the London Mining Network that includes formal NGOs, and social movement organisations such as Global Justice Now, War on Want, and the UK Tar Sands Network.

…social media are embedded in wider societal structures.

Social media can play a central role in civic engagement, especially by enabling individual citizens, networked activists, and NGOs to share information about injustice and responses to injustice with like-minded people, with wider audiences, and across national and regional boundaries. However, social media are embedded in wider societal structures. Thus, they are also important sites for government and corporate surveillance, and characterised by unequal access, with significant differences between the North and South, the urban and non-urban, as well as the privileged and underprivileged. This must be kept in mind when it comes to the uses of and policies for social media.

Photo: “Hands up!” by Id-Iom
2011 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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